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Scandal in Paris: John Singer Sargent's Mysterious Portrait of Madame X

Click here for the photos of the evening!

On the evening of October 14th at the Grosvenor Museum a large audience of Chester DFAS members and friends was treated to a very illuminating lecture by Mary Alexander on John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X.  Mary’s enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of her subject shone through as she outlined the fascinating story behind what Sargent reckoned was his best work. 

Singer Sargent 1856-1925, born in Florence to American parents, was a gifted artist and an enigmatic man, widely travelled and cultured.  He trained in Paris in portrait painting and influenced by his hero, Velazquez, he went on to enjoy success with his portraits of Dr Pozzi and The Incense Burner.

Madame X, we learnt, was the beautiful American socialite, Amelie Gautreau.  She was famed for her extraordinary outline, her long, swanlike neck and her use of lavender make up!  Swept away by her beauty, Sargent begged Amelie to sit for him and eventually she agreed on condition that she sat in her summerhouse in Brittany.  However, Sargent began to have doubts.  Amelie could not sit still for long, sometimes just rushing off to Paris!

The portrait was finally put on show at the Paris Salon in 1884 – a large, arresting portrayal of the beautiful Amelie as a married woman in a striking black velvet dress with thin diamante straps.  Mary showed us slides of Sargent’s preparatory sketches for his masterpiece, explaining his diligence in choosing the right dress and setting.  No doubt he was influenced by the current work of Toulouse Lautrec and Manet and the popularity of Japanese prints.  Sargent, however, was not prepared for the venom of the critics and the scandal caused by the portrait at a time when ladies were normally corseted and wearing bustles!  Amelie, it appears, was totally out of step in her dress and her crescent hair ornament was suggestive of the bordello!  The real problem was one of the straps of Amelie’s dress had slipped off her shoulder – not at all proper for a respectable married woman in 1884.  As a result Amelie disowned the portrait.  When the portrait was taken down at the Salon, Sargent was able to paint out the offending strap and kept the portrait in his own studio.

Thanks to Mary’s enthralling lecture, we all felt a real empathy with Sargent, having gone through all his highs and lows with him.   We enjoyed reflecting on how times changed, even a few years after Sargent put Amelie’s portrait on show.  Poor Amelie came in for our sympathy too.  She became a recluse, was ostracised and never met Sargent again.  Sargent moved to England, where, thanks to the patronage of Henry James in particular, he went on to enjoy success at the Royal Academy and the Tate.  On Amelie’s death in 1915 Sargent sold his portrait of Amelie to the Metropolitan Museum on condition it was called ‘Madame X’.

 He had been too far ahead of his time.

 Audrey Wraith.